Tiny Injectable Chip Can Monitor Alcohol Levels in the Body

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Checking alcohol levels in your body usually requires a breathalyzer or a blood test. The breathalyzer is quick and easy, but they can be inaccurate. Blood tests are accurate, but you need a medical professional to draw blood and run the test. Engineers at UC San Diego are working on an alternative in the form of a tiny injectable chip. Once in place in the body, it can check alcohol levels and communicate them to an external device.

The chip is truly compact with a volume of about one cubic millimeter (you can see it compared with a penny and 16-gauge needle above). It’s injected under the skin (no surgery required), where it interacts with the interstitial fluid to detect alcohol in your system. That is the fluid that surrounds your cells. The team suggests the chip could be ideal for use in alcohol treatment programs, which usually require patients to undergo frequent testing. That might strike people as a bit invasive and big-brother-y, but it could provide faster, more reliable readings than other methods.

Embedded in the chip are three sensors. One is coated with alcohol oxidase, which interacts with alcohol to generate aldehyde and hydrogen peroxide. The sensor can measure the byproducts to determine how much alcohol is in the bloodstream. The two additional sensors measure pH levels in order to calibrate the readings from the alcohol sensor and ensure it’s accurate.

The chip was designed to have very low power usage, but it’s still just a cubic millimeter. That doesn’t leave room for a battery, but the data transmission takes care of power as well. The chip has a limited range, though the researchers envision a smartwatch or similar device near the injection site. The watch pings the chip with radio frequency signals that are reflected back with modifications that relay its data. It takes just three seconds for the chip to complete a reading and send its data. That should limit the battery impact on the wearable device.

So far, the chip has been tested in laboratory settings with a simulated fluid environment under pig skin. The next step is to see how the chip works inside a living creature. In the future, the team hopes to design sensors based on this one that can detect other compounds. One day, you may be injected with various micro-sensors that relay information to a wearable device for continuous health tracking.

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